January-February 2016 | HISTORY TEACHER




Thanks to the vision and curating skill of Jim Blackwell, the Seaford Museum is emerging as a destination venue for all who care about the history of the Eastern Shore

Written By: Brian Shane | Photographer: GRANT L. GURSKY

On the night of April 1, 1900, the stars twinkled in the impossibly clear night sky over the Nanticoke River. Two old gentlemen were canning oysters at the wharf’s edge. A blacksmith worked on a small forge, and a sailor’s widow, dressed in black, stared out to sea over the din of a wailing foghorn.

This isn’t a tall tale or a fireside yarn. This is what it’s like to stand inside the Seaford Museum’s exhibit on maritime life, where they’ve captured the feel of being on the riverfront at the turn of the 20th century, right down to a skipjack’s oyster haul and the planks underfoot.

The museum invested $150,000 in local funds and grant money into the wharf exhibit, as professional a display as you’ll see in a community the size of Seaford.

It’s just one portion of a museum that’s a true community gem. Inside a converted 11,000 square foot Post Office, you’ll also find centuries of Seaford history, from the Native American tribes, through wartime, into the modern day.

At the wharf exhibit, the night sky of LED lights dotting the ceiling is an exact recreation of that first April night at the turn of the century. 

“The stars are within a quarter-inch of where they need to be,” museum curator Jim Blackwell says of the ceiling décor. “It was meant to be as close as possible, to make the stars correct. When we got the date, there weren’t that many constellations up that were easy constellations, except for the Big Dipper.”  

The scene also includes an example of an oyster-canning operation, plus a hands-on display of block and tackle pulleys, so visitors can try hoisting a catch of heavy oysters for themselves.

You’ll also see examples of 19th-century steamer trunks with curved tops — and without flat tops, these crates had to be stacked on top of cargo. That meant curved-lid trunks got off the ship first, a clever innovation of the time.

The town was a key shipping point for lower Delaware in the mid-1800s. When both trains and steamboats came through town regularly, “all of a sudden, Seafordians could now make money, because they could get things easily to Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York or Baltimore,” Blackwell said. “If you look, it was 35-40 miles from Chesapeake Bay, unlike Salisbury, which was a great deal closer.”

The museum pulls no punches with the town’s history of slavery. That includes an exhibit on Patty Cannon, a notorious slave trader known to wrestle men. There’s also Harriet Tubman, standing guard over a hotel entrance, a depiction of a daring escape Tubman engineered in 1856 by sneaking a slave named Tilly out of town by steamboat.

There’s a nod to Burton Bros. Hardware store on High Street, which burned down in 2012, after being open continuously since 1893. Blackwell also includes exhibits on the poultry industry, Nanticoke Memorial Hospital, and a DuPont plant — all the things that helped Seaford grow and keep people employed.

One display shows Governor William Ross and his wife in their antebellum parlor, complete with the hard-of-hearing Ross holding a tube to his ear. The state’s youngest governor at the time, who served from 1851-55, is remembered for his contributions to the railroads and to agriculture. 

Ross was also a devout Southern sympathizer and supporter of slavery. Family lore says he was shipped out in an apple barrel to avoid Lincoln’s troops, and fled to England, where he lived out his days.

One unexplainable curiosity of the museum is called the Seaford Meteor. The fist-sized rock fell from the sky in August 1888 and left a six-foot hole in the ground. Blackwell says scientists have determined the meteorite may have been leftover debris from the 1883 volcanic explosion on the island of Krakatoa — making it a piece of rock thrown so hard, it went into orbit for five years before finally crashing back to Earth.

Blackwell has officially been the museum’s curator for about three years, though before that, he was an active contributor to the Historical Society going back about a decade.

“By and large, this is a wonderful museum,” he said. “To come in and be able to see the history of your town is pretty special. When you tell the history of a town, you’re telling the history of the state, and you’re telling the history of the nation. So, really, American history, it’s right here. It’s how it transpired through our little area, and I just think it’s great.” 

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